Reflections on the Film Blade Runner
A False Claim and a True One

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Editorials/Reviews

like tears
in rain

Nota bene: If you haven't seen the film, you should. The text below will make little sense if you haven't - it starts in medias res, and significant plot points - spoilers - are discussed in detail.

"More Human Than Human" - a False Claim

Despite the Tyrell Corporation's unrelenting propaganda, a fair amount of backstory, and every overt message of the film itself, replicants aren't at all "more human than human," whatever that means. Replicants are nothing more - and nothing less - than human beings.

Consider these observations:

From this it rapidly becomes apparent that replicants weren't designed from scratch, that in a very real sense they aren't products at all, despite the buzzword "synthogenetic" (from the Blade Runner FAQ). Replicants are indistinguishable from other humans on the cellular level - their cells are not encoded with the sort of trademark that should appear on any corporate genetic construct, and does appear on others in the film. The aforementioned FAQ also says that "In one draft of the script Bryant tells Deckard they did an autopsy on the replicant that was fried trying to break into the Tyrell Corp. and didn't even know it was a replicant until two hours into the procedure."

Yet replicants are the product of design, there's no doubt about that either. How do they differ from ordinary humans, then, if not by means of a corporate trademark easily written into their very cells? Other than their psychology, which seems to be tainted more by their sterile, forced and accelerated upbringing than by any traceable physical marker, there is only one thing that reliably distinguishes a replicant from any other human being, and that not until the very end: longevity. Replicants have a truncated lifespan, able to expect only some 4 years of adulthood before breaking down - before dying, that is.

Is this a natural consequence of the genetic engineering program that created them? Of course not. We are explicitly told that the shortened lifespan of replicants is designed in, planned obsolescence of the most cynical and abhorrent kind... and the movie itself tells us where it comes from.

J.F. Sebastian, the reclusive genius whose special friendship with Tyrell provides Roy Batty with the access he needs to confront his so-called "father," gives it away, during Sebastian's brief conversation with Batty in his toy-strewn lair in the Bradbury Building. Sebastian says offhand, "There's some of me in you." I think we're supposed to think that this refers to the Nexus Six series alone, perhaps to Batty's superior intelligence, which burns "so very, very brightly," but I don't think it does. I think it refers to something J.F. Sebastian contributed to all replicants.

Sebastian's genius makes him unique in one way, certainly, but intelligence is relatively common and obviously not something given to all replicants. However, the 25-year-old J.F. Sebastian has one other trait, described at some length, that makes him far more uncommon: he is afflicted with something called "Methuselah's Syndrome" in the film but which strongly resembles what is known medically as progeria - rapid, premature aging, a disease coded into the genes and, even in the future and with the resources of the Tyrell corporation behind him, apparently still incurable... but nothing ever says that Tyrell couldn't figure out how to intensify the trait.

That is what Sebastian and (almost) all replicants share. That is his primary, unadvertised contribution to the replicant genome, and Sebastian knows it, though he has perhaps not followed through on, or has chosen to deny, the implications of his own remark. It is this secret, most likely, that keeps Tyrell interested in and friendly to Sebastian's reclusive habits. The reason Tyrell's replicants die so terribly soon is not because any replicant must, not through any flaw in their manufacture or in the process of cloning itself, but because his friend's own genes have been used to make them that way.

"We're Stupid and We'll Die!" - a True Claim

The question of whether Deckard, the best blade runner ever, is himself a replicant like the ones he hunts has taken up a lot of space and a lot of time. Director Ridley Scott has indicated quite strongly that he considers Deckard to be a replicant. Clues scattered through the movie (especially the "Director's Cut") point to this conclusion, from origami unicorns to flashing orange eyes.

I hate to think that the director could miss the point of his own film... but frankly, if Scott really thinks that Deckard's a replicant (and he does), he's wrong. If he were to come out and say it in a full-page ad in Variety, he'd still be wrong. Blade Runner is not just a futuristic noir detective story; it's a meditation on what it means to be human. The primary mechanism by which that takes place is the opposition of Deckard and the replicants. If they're all replicants, there's no opposition, and not much point to the film - it's just a messier, more organic version of a demolition derby. If Deckard's a human, though, it makes sense: as we see more and more clearly that the replicants, though manufactured, are people, we realize that Deckard, a man of woman born, has given up his humanity in order to become what he is: a serial murderer.

It doesn't matter if the next edition of Blade Runner shows us a scene of Deckard being decanted from a tank right next to a Nexus Six. Cold as he has become, as any blade runner has to be to convince himself that the people he kills are just products, he's still human, just like any other replicant. Just like us. And the message of Blade Runner, then, is not a forbidden love story across some arbitrary boundary between replicant and human, or even between murderer and victim reprieved... but a deeper and more nuanced plea against treating people like property, and for recognizing the humanity in all of us, both in those of us who chose to renounce it as Deckard did, and in those who have been told over and over that they don't possess it at all, like Roy Batty, and Pris, and even Rachael... and maybe even some of you reading this.

Though they may be constructed entities, cobbled together from bits and pieces of genetic material - "I design you eyes!" says the eccentric bioengineer Chew - replicants are fundamentally human. Even the least of them is capable of comprehending the basic existential crisis of the human condition. Pris states it most baldly, unadorned: "We're stupid and we'll die!" Roy Batty, in his self-delivered eulogy, understands that despite all he has seen, he too will be consumed, "like tears in rain."

Like us. Replicants are people, just like us. They don't live nearly long enough...

"But then again, who does?"

©1998, 2003, 2004, 2007 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Last modified October 4, 2007.

Contact me: